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Interview with Max Cooper

img  Tobias Fischer

The higher you get the farther the fall? One thing's for sure: If an album release comes with as much anticipation as Max Cooper's Human, there's always a serious chance of disappointing expectations – especially so, if the work in question outwardly appears to offer a radically different approach to your previous output. Little wonder, then, that Cooper recently expressed his uncertainty about whether people would come to appreciate Human, his long-awaited first full-length after a string of EPs. Although the latter were anything but typical dancefloor-fodder, they were still oriented towards the club, after all, focussing on the meticulous variation of hypnotic grooves and mesmerising pad work. On Human, the beats and pads are still there. This time around, however, they're propelling forward sonically even more deep and diverse pieces sporting an attention to detail only noticeable through attentive listening. On hyperdimensional percussion orgy "Impacts" or the perpetual overdrive of "Seething" - an exercise in translating red-heat aggression into sound -  Cooper is in fully fledged experimentation mode, exploring the intricacies of sound both with the passion of a nuclear physicist and the sensibility of a poet. There are no comfort zones here, which is why Human feels like an infinite parachute drop over an alien landscape, like a tightrope walk between utmost complexity and disarming emotional nakedness. To anyone who's followed his work, however, it is merely the logical conclusion of an intense personal development process. In March of 2012, I spoke to Max about his approach to composing on the occasion of his Egomodal EP. Already back then, many of his replies for this interview clearly anticipated his current production work. Disappoint some listeners may have been a serious possibility for Human. But doing things differently for fear of rejection certainly wasn't.

Adam Wiltzie of Stars of the Lid told me about how over-emphasising technical aspects rarely yielded tangible results. From your perspective, are perfectionism and technology a force for good?
Technical aspects of modern production easily yield tangible results. If I simultaneously modulate 100 random parameters for example, it will yield a tangible mess! Maybe he meant tangible plus musically beneficial, in which case it's more a question of preference. I love the sound of technology, some people don't. So for me, technology is a force for musical good, yes. As for perfectionism, by definition I guess it should be a good thing, maybe only the artist driving themselves insane with it might disagree.

Is the process of creating a piece of music as important as the finished product?
That's interesting, the question of importance. On a practical level the finished product is the only important thing; that is what makes writing music a possible career. But artistically, and in terms of enjoyment, it's the process of writing each track that's important, because that's when everything happens, you freeze the emotions and ideas of that moment in time, in the form of the piece of music. When someone listens to the music later, it's only a reference back to that originating moment.

I often think that you can perceive something about the popular or powerful attitudes and ideals of the time, in music from different decades, centuries and cultures - some classical music sounding aristocratic and pompous, full of frills and attempts to be sophisticated for example, because it was something only made for the elite of society with a certain mindset. Or popular music from the US in the 80's, full of naive idealism and greatness, not necessarily a healthy mindset to have, but a great mindset for making positive, pure music that strongly conveys its message. Of course a large part of this perception is no doubt an association of these ideas with the music, rather than a musical communication of the ideas, but I think it goes both ways to some degree. Once the link is formed, it doesn't really matter how it happened anyway, the language of musical communication is there, and is used as a tool for artists to try and get their ideas across in future.

An example where the initial moment of creation and the attempted message from the artist might lose its importance however, could be when a piece of music becomes heavily associated with a particular public movement or new way of thinking, like a Hendrix track from the 60's or something. In these cases a piece could take on a whole new and greater meaning. Although that said, I'd imagine the artist creating the piece probably would share common views to those later associated with it, but I bet there's a minority of example's out there with a complete disconnect, where the initial moment of creation really has lost its relevance to how the piece is perceived in general.

So in answer to your question of importance, if you value the practical benefits to the artist highest, then the final product is most important, whereas if you value the artistic message highest, then the process of creation is most important. Personally I think the effect the music has on its audience is more important than either of those things, and that effect is dependent on both the creation and final product, so for me there is no answer to your question, and I've made you go through the pain of my excessively long answer all for nothing!

There's a degree of complexity in your music, which adds to its intrigue. On the other hand, too much complexity can confuse rather than stimulate the brain. Where, if at all, do you personally draw the line?
I think that for music to be enjoyable it needs to challenge the listener, but not completely confuse them. Two year olds might find twinkle-twinkle little star quite musically challenging, but they can understand it, so it might be one of their favourites, while an aged jazz enthusiast's favourites might sound incomprehensible to most of us. The line is dependent on the individual, so the person making the music has to choose their own arbitrary point to draw it depending on their aims with the music. For the most part, I'd say artists will draw the line in line with their line.

Your question got me thinking about my last answer though, when I was saying that some old classical sounds pompous to me because of what I hear as musical frills added only to make the music sound more complex. People could say the same about my music.

I think the key here is the difference between failed and successful complexity. If something sounds like it's trying to be complex but in fact you can see straight through it as something very simple, then that is when it sounds pompous – i.e. cheap tricks. Whereas, if something sounds complex and unfathomable, it can be interesting and enjoyable to try and make sense of. Again, the boundaries here are completely subjective, maybe my music sounds pompous to some people. The only thing I can say about that is that I add complexity to my music because I think it makes it more enjoyable to listen to in terms of the timbre. What I'm aiming for is to try and bring some of the richness of the real world into what can be the painfully formulaic and lifeless sound of purely computational music. The pompous vibe certainly isn't the message I'm trying to convey, but maybe it really is just cheap trickery for people who like to think they're sophisticated, maybe we're just a modern version of those old aristocrats I imagined. You could argue this whole answer is exactly what sort of thing they might write if they were here today, and that it's even pompous to use the word pompous, but then we're heading for all sorts of self-referential pain - another cheap trick right there for the illusion of sophistication, things aren't looking good for me!

I find it particularly interesting that although some of your tracks seem to be slightly more dancefloor-oriented than others, this says nothing about their musical complexity per se. In fact, the two areas of dancing and listening, simplicity and complexity, appear to merge.
I general I like to maximise contrasts musically, so I play with very quiet followed by very loud, soft and harsh, melodic and percussive etc. Simplicity and complexity are two key elements that I try to contrast in a lot of tracks, so that each accentuates the other, and so I can try to introduce more of a rich listening experience. You can choose to listen to the track on whatever level you want, in a club for example where a lot of the detail is lost, or at home on a quality system where you’re trying to delve into the details as much as possible. If you take the production of a track like "Simplexity", for example, I used a lot of Max for Live effects and the Max for Live API plugins which can modulate pretty much any parameters in Live. This allowed me to simultaneously change a lot of parameters in a controlled manner so that I could generate the complexity. The simplicity came from the basic drum and melodic structure running underneath.

One of the stand-out features of Max is its "build your own" function. This reminded me of how composer Evan Merz once told me in an interview that unless you're writing new software, you couldn't truly create new music.
By that reasoning none but the first ever classical composers ever created new music! But I take the point, albeit in a less extreme form – if you want to create music with a new general sound, then you have to develop new techniques of your own for sound synthesis, live or electronic. It often strikes me that there is a very direct link between how interesting someone’s track sounds, and how interesting their production techniques are when I ask them how they did it.

There is ample room for creativity within the frameworks of existing production software, but if you want to go deep into new territory then programming is probably the way to go yes. The pitfall with this is that people often get lost in the technicalities of how sounds are made, and lose touch with the idea needed to make a good piece of music. Personally I find that I need to work as quickly as possible with the technical side of things when I’m making a track so that I don’t lose sight of the emotive idea or concept I’m trying to communicate. That means no side-tracks into programming! In my experience it’s almost like the rigid logic of the programming and technical side of production is a mental task that is mutually exclusive of the creative artistic thought needed to make music. I guess there’s a balance to be found as with most things. In answer to the final part of your question, the benefits of working in depth with the tools behind the music, is that you open a lot of doors to be explored artistically when you get that side of your thought process going.

All of this does suggest that applications and creativity, programming and composition are closely connected.
All applications are important, each application often only provides a limited degree of freedom, so sometimes you can hear when people have been using specific synths or techniques to create their music – the choice of applications defines the sound, so it’s good to experiment with using your own personalised set of applications and techniques.

If you’re writing electronic music then the connection is that programs are being used for the composition. As for any deeper link between programming and composition, I could say that the processes are similar in my experience of the two – starting with a concept to be translated into the musical or coded form on a computer, followed by many rounds of experimentation and assessment, error corrections and changes to finally arrive at something that “works”.

So how do these two areas compare?
Writing music is a lot more fun. A lot more!

Max Cooper Interview by Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Max Cooper
Homepage: Fields Records